Thursday, 12 April 2012

Hard as stone

Those affected by the hosepipe ban should turn to Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex for ideas on how to survive the drought

Written by Carolyn Hart
Threatened simultaneously with a hosepipe ban and forecasts of frost and snow mid- April, as well as counter-intuitive warnings of hard drought in the summer, the plight of the gardener is not, this year, a happy one. Whichever way you jump, it's bound to end in pain.

One garden that might provide some comfort in worrying times is Beth Chatto's glorious plot in Essex – not least because Chatto has pioneered something once almost unheard of in this country, but now, after the hosepipe ban, which was enforced last week, apparently much needed; a dry garden that grows alongside stretches of woodland, and boggy ground. Chatto's dry garden is just off the A133 four miles from Colchester, a far cry from the Mediterranean landscape it resembles.

It arose because when she started to make this garden in 1960, on an overgrown area of wasteland that specialised in a range of wildly differing conditions – from drought-stricken sand and gravel, through to woodland and silty bog – she had to devise planting schemes to suit all these different areas.

Both her Mediterranean and gravel spaces are therefore definitely worth a visit if you are trying to garden in an area threatened with drought this summer – not only for a crash course in the type of plants that have a fighting chance of survival in such conditions, but also to see the design schemes that make the most of these plants in situ. Chatto remarks, en passant in her introduction, that, 'in the Gravel Garden plants such as lavender, ballota and santolina tend to look like a tray of buns, unless they are interrupted by plants with striking presence, such as ornamental alliums, shimmering grasses or stately verbascums' – a whole lesson in garden design in a single sentence.


In the meantime, Chatto's springtime garden is a thing of wonder – even envy. It is captured by the photographer Rachel Warne in a new book, showing luscious vistas of wood anemones, pink and plumcoloured Lenten roses, daffodils and narcissus, flowering cherries and magnolias. Fragile, beautiful, prey to sudden frosts, but deeply evocative of life burgeoning in this most wonderful of seasons.

A Year In The Life Of Beth Chatto's Gardens is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £16.99.

The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex, is open 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 10am to 5pm Sunday: 01206-822007,

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